A two-month operation to clear poppy fields in Helmand province – the world’s largest opium-producing region – has begun.
Afghan enforcement teams have a 60-day window between early March and late April, dictated by growing patterns, in which to take action to eradicate crops in the war-torn province of Afghanistan.
The aim is to eliminate harvesting of the illegal crop from at least 2,000 hectares in the food zone around the Helmand valley.
The drive is being led by the province’s governor Gulab Mangal, aided by the work of Afghan security forces following years of fighting by coalition troops.
Major Ross Brown, head of eradication for the Provincial Reconstruction Team’s (PRT) counter-narcotics department, said Afghan teams from each district would use tractors and ploughs, provided by international funding, to target farms ranging from smallholdings to large, organised crime operations.
They will face constant danger as many poppy producers use improvised explosive devices (IEDs) – more commonly associated with the insurgency – to protect their crops. Maj Brown said a carrot and stick approach was being used – almost literally.
Farmers who have been offered the opportunity and support to switch to growing carrots and wheat, but who refused to take up the offer, will be targeted first.
He said: “The long-term aim is to create a secure and stable food zone in the heart of Helmand. This would provide economic prosperity, strengthen the rule of law and ultimately provide a more sustainable future for Helmand.
“There is an increasing appetite among locals to eradicate poppy growth in the region. This is motivated by concerns about the large number of domestic drug addicts and the corruption associated with drug production. Most of all, locals are objecting because growing poppy is illegal and against Islamic law.”
This year’s operation is seen as crucial as next year will be the final opportunity to clamp down on poppy growth before the withdrawal of troops, he added.
Meanwhile, a team of British soldiers is also helping revitalise waterways in Afghanistan.
Seven Royal Engineers have helped Afghan contractors open 30 canal sites since January to help rejuvenate agriculture in the Helmand valley.
Major Andy Green, 36, from Sheffield, led “Operation Tethys”. He said: “After a period of neglect, we’re helping them restore the system to its original capacity by supervising local contractors alongside Afghan engineers.
“By working alongside the Helmand Arghandab Valley Authority, which manages the canal system, and contractors we can maintain a high standard of work and train them in project planning and management at the same time. Soon the Afghans will be using their own skills to plan and execute the maintenance and repair of their canal system.”